A Pennsylvania judge has taken the advice of an expert witness and ordered a specific regimen of mental health treatment for a defendant who has been sentenced to state prison time.
On June 17, 2016, 31-year-old Calvin McDonald from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania got into an argument with his girlfriend at their residence. McDonald duct-taped and tied up his girlfriend with rope, choked her, and threw her into the back of their minivan. McDonald drove around for hours, going as far as Wheeling, West Virginia. The couple’s two children were also in the vehicle.
When McDonald later returned to his residence, his girlfriend was able to communicate with a neighbor through an upstairs window to call the police.
During his trial, forensic psychologist Shannon Edwards testified that McDonald suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Edwards also testified that McDonald was in a dissociative state during the incident.
A jury found McDonald guilty but mentally ill on five counts, including aggravated assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. The jury acquitted McDonald of sexual assault, endangering the welfare of children and criminal attempt of homicide.
Judge Alexander P. Bicket of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas sentenced Calvin McDonald to 5 to 10 years in state prison. Judge Bicket also ordered the state to provide McDonald with the specific mental health regimen recommended by defense expert witness Shannon Edwards.
Edwards recommended that McDonald receive the psychotropic drugs already prescribed to him, individual and group counseling, and other kinds of therapy. Edwards also requested that Judge Bicket reevaluate McDonald’s mental health after one year. Edwards said that McDonald will regress if he does not continue to follow his current treatment regimen.
Mental Health Courts
Allegheny County is one of the many counties that has mental health courts that deal with nonviolent offenders whose psychiatric problems are the underlying factors in their criminal cases. In Allegheny County, the mental health court is designed to divert individuals with non-violent criminal charges who have a documented diagnosis of a mental illness to community based services; maintain treatment, housing, benefits, supervision and community support services for the individual; maintain effective communication between the criminal justice system and mental health system; and support public safety.
Benefits of mental health courts include giving an offender the opportunity to be released from jail and placed in mental health services/treatment in lieu of incarceration. An offender who is placed on probation by a mental health court is supervised by a special services probation officer and receives support from an Office of Behavioral Health Mental Health Court probation liaison.
However, mental health court is only available to defendants with a documented diagnosis of a mental disorder, mental disability or dual-diagnosis with a mental disorder and substance abuse who is charged with committing a misdemeanor and/or non-violent felony in Allegheny County and is awaiting trial and/or sentencing.
Judge Bicket’s ruling is an example of how mental health court principles might be applied to prisoners with mental health issues who have committed violent felonies.